Category Archives: jewish spirituality

“Loving God”:The Meaning of the Sh’ma

What Jew doesn’t know the Sh’ma with its following V’ahavta, the command to love God with all our heart, soul, and might. We learn it as children and die with it on our lips. But do we all believe it?

What makes people believe in God to the point of offering God love?

Some people reason their way to God – like Maimonides (1138-1204). Seeing how everything in the universe is dependent on something else, he concluded that there had to be something ultimate and unchanging to support it all. By definition, that was God. Loving God, he thought, followed naturally from observing “the magnificence of all that is,” and “the incomparable and infinite wisdom” of the One who made it.

But reason can also lead away from God, so most God-believers depend on intuition; or, frequently, a “Eureka moment” when God’s reality just, somehow, becomes clear. After the fact, they may argue their case, but belief comes first; reason only justifies it.

Think of the Bible as the record of our ancestors’ Eureka moments. Jacob’s dream of a heavenly ladder convinces him that “God is in this place and I did not know it.” Moses encounters God personally and descends Mt. Sinai to tell his people what he now cannot doubt: Sh’ma yisra’el Adonai eloheinu Adonai echad, “Listen up, Israel: Adonai is our God; Adonai alone; v’ahavta…  “Love God with all your heart, soul and might.”

The Israelites take his word for it, as do we. But their faith lapses on occasion, as does ours. With no Eureka moment of our own, it can be hard to believe with certainty in a personal God.

Philosophers after Maimonides also apply reason – that’s what philosophers do – but they had prior Eureka moments, or at least, intuition. Take Chasdai Crescas (1340-1410), who, even in Spain, encountered Italian humanism and its reassertion of the emotions. The way to God, it followed, was not by Maimonidean logical detachment, but by love. For Maimonides, the command to love God was secondary to the argument for God’s singularity. Crescas reversed the order. Open yourself to God’s love by offering love back, and the Eureka-like certainty of God’s reality will hit home.

Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) too believed, “We know love only when we love and are loved.” He simply “knew” God’s love and could not help but return it.

All three thinkers began with something they experienced as indubitably real: reason (Maimonides) or love (Crescas and Rosenzweig).

We too value reason and love. But we have issues of our own: and with them, an opportunity to think anew about “loving God.”

We are the wealthiest, most accepted, most educated, and most powerful diasporan community in Jewish history. Yet contentment eludes us. We are successful, but is that all there is? We live longer, only to watch family and friends die off, and to know that we too are here today and gone tomorrow. Good health fails; relationships sour; families turn out differently than we imagined; life itself is tenuous. To love any of these above all else is to court eventual disaster. The Sh’ma insists on something beyond it all.

Our era is awash with people looking for that something — in eastern philosophies, Buddhist meditation, deeper yoga. Yet, Judaism already has it, if we take the Sh’ma seriously.

Jewish thought offers many ways to picture the God of the Sh’ma:  a person; a friendly presence; a force for good; and more. But these cannot do God justice, says Maimonides, because God is beyond our imaginative capacity.

The Sh’ma, therefore, refers to none of these pictures in particular. It insists only on something beyond the phenomena that fail: something that is eternal, trustworthy, and good: it names that “God.”

Loving God is a state of mind, a spiritual perspective, whereby we anchor ourselves in “the eternal, trustworthy, and good,” so that when all else fails (as eventually it will), we are not left empty and bereft.

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The Shape of Time

Before cell phones, we bought paper calendars – things you hung on a wall or put in your pocket or pocketbook. They gave us pictures of time.

No one knows what time actually is, after all. Time is something we live through, grow older in, but what is it?

Our calendars tell us, through the tacit decisions behind their organization.

That annual calendar you bought, for example, was organized in double-page spreads, called weeks. Each double page had seven days. The pages were blank but for the dates and days – and numbers down one side corresponding to hours.

The whole point of this calendar was to fill in as many lines as you could with appointments, as if life were a game in which the person who dies with the most appointments wins.

This “for-appointments-only” calendar derives from our implicit understanding of time as a commodity that can be “saved,” “lost,” “spent,” or “wasted.” By this secular calculus, “wasting time” is a sin for which we get chastised, because
“Time is money.”

Money, however, is fungible – funds set aside for one purpose are interchangeable with funds set aside for another. So too is time, according to this model. Every day, every hour, is the same as any other. Time is empty, just an arbitrary number on the left side of the calendar page, demanding an appointment to give it value.

Not so the Jewish calendar, which you don’t have to buy because funeral homes and kosher butchers give them out for free. While secular calendars come empty, Jewish calendars come loaded: a changeable time of sunset (for lighting candles); names for each week (drawn from the weekly Torah reading) and a plethora of days that come colored to show their importance. They are most certainly not all alike.

The most usual colored day is Shabbat, the only day in the week with a name. the others, “Day One” “Day Two” and so on (in Hebrew), are just numbered upward to lead to Shabbat. The point of this calendar is not to list appointments (for which there is no room anyway) but to get to the colored days when appointments are actually prohibited!

The Jewish calendar divides the secular from the sacred; and reminds us that the fullness of life requires them both.

Most interesting is another colored day, that occurs each month: Rosh Chodesh, “the new moon.” When it falls mid-week, Rosh Chodesh is easily passed over. This week, however, the new month (of Shevat) coincides with Shabbat, allowing us to stop and give Rosh Chodesh its due.

Unlike those pocket secular calendars that are divided by weeks, Jewish calendars display whole months: each page begins with a Rosh Chodesh. Secular months are arbitrary, unattached to actual lunar phases. Jewish months are really lunar. New moons matter.

Jewish law considers them half-holy days, not altogether days of rest (like Shabbat). But Talmudic tradition in the Land of Israel recognized that women (whose monthly cycle roughly mirrors the cosmic one) could properly refrain from work then, if they liked. And all Jews there thought enough of Rosh Chodesh to provide it with its own evening Kiddush. These are home observances, not public ones, and I wish we still had them.

Acknowledging the newness of every moon and month reminds us of the grand possibility of starting our own lives over again. We regularly associate that message with Rosh Hashanah, but Rosh Hashanah is just one new moon of many. Every new moon invites us to turn over a new page in the calendar, the point being that we can simultaneously turn over a new page in our lives.

I love Rosh Hashanah’s message of life renewed. But some months are so bad, I’d rather not wait a whole year for Rosh Hashanah to return. And our calendar says I don’t have to. I just watch for the next new moon, bid the awful month past a happy “Good riddance,” and start my life all over again.

The Inevitability of “Alone”

“Do you have what it takes to survive by yourself in the wild?” So goes the come-on for the hit reality show, Alone, where “hard core survivalists” spend a year in the wilderness – all alone.

Judaism’s spiritual parallel is Yom Kippur. Not exactly “the wild” or “wilderness,” and only for a day, but despite the Kol Nidre crowd, it’s all about being alone with just yourself; and even (to trust the liturgy) surviving. Are you capable of spending even a day alone confronting everything you’d rather not admit: how fast you’re aging, what you have amounted to so far; and whether you have it in you to change. Preparation for Yom Kippur began this week with the reading that introduces the penitential month of Elul: “See,” it proclaims, “I set before you blessing and curse.” Though addressed to all of Israel, the verb “See” is in the singular, leading commentators to explain, “Spoken to each and every person, singly”– as if alone.

The shofar is blown daily during Elul, just a single lonely blast, quick and piercing to the individual soul – because the commandment to hear the shofar is addressed to each of us, alone: No one else can hear it for us.

And no one can confess for us on Yom Kippur. Though our confession sounds communal (“For the sin which we have sinned…”) the Rabbis instruct us to confess in our own words as well.

Jews are not good at being alone. We like talk, not quiet. Even the so-called “silent” prayer (the Amidah) is noisy. We like to hear each other, to know we’re not alone.

But we are.

Daily moments of aloneness arrive with choices of conscience, decisions no one knows about except ourselves. They wink at us each morning from the bathroom mirror, reminding us of who we really are, before we dress up to look our best. They hammer on our consciousness when we are sick, depressed, or weary – when people say, “I know how you feel,” but we know they don’t.

If we are lucky, we will get time to age: another case of being alone, this time in progressive disengagement from responsibilities and schedules; from assistants and associates who once answered beeps and sent us daily emails; and eventually, as loss of memory and mental competence sets in, from friends and family too.

Final aloneness arrives with death, “the stoppage of circulation, the inadequate transport of oxygen to tissues, the flickering out of brain function, the failure of organs, the destruction of vital centers” (says medical expert Sherwin B. Nuland in How We Die). Others watch; even hold our hand; but we alone must face the awful fact of being, really, “here today” but “gone tomorrow.”      Our model for aloneness is Moses himself, as human a character as ever lived. Moses leads as we wish we could, but errs as we know we do. He loses his temper (kills the taskmaster); suffers self-doubt (needs Aaron as his spokesman); is not your ideal parent or family man.

But he knows what it is to be alone. As a solitary desert shepherd, he sees the burning bush. Alone atop the mountain, he receives the Torah. And alone again, atop another mountain, he will die.

Or Hachayyim thinks Moses himself is saying “see,” instructing us the way God instructed him: in lonely solitude. “We all inherit a spark from Moses,” says the Zohar: the spark of knowing how to be alone.

But the spark needs fanning – for which we have Elul: to try each day to disengage, at least a tiny bit, from the din of daily wear and tear; to reflect each day on who we are and who we want to be. To arrive at Yom Kippur, prepared to be alone, as if it were the day of death itself. Do that, and it won’t be so bad even on the day we really die. Like anything else, dying too needs practice. And it’s never too soon to start.